The next time you’re driving on 300 West in Salt Lake City and risk causing a three-car crowd by swerving to avoid a pothole, take heart to the good news. Utah (tied with Georgia) received the country’s highest rating for its infrastructure.
The bad news is, it’s a C +.
The bulletins come from the White House Monday as part of his effort to sell President Joe Biden’s US Jobs Plan, a $ 2.3 trillion proposal to update the country’s infrastructure. In concept, that’s what Republicans and Democrats have been clamoring for for two decades. Fixing streets, building bridges, improving waterways – these are non-partisan practicalities that members of Congress would be eager to hand over to their constituents.
In practice, it is not that simple. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has sworn he would oppose Biden’s plan “every step of the way.” The Republicans’ main concern is the price, which Biden plans to offset through tax hikes.
“This is called infrastructure”, McConnell told reporters“But inside the Trojan horse, there will be more borrowed money and massive tax increases on all productive parts of our economy.”
And then there is the question of how we define “infrastructure”. Biden takes a more imaginative approach in his plan, which includes payments for typical assets like roads and bridges, but also pays to bolster healthcare, provide jobs for caregivers, and build affordable housing.
Is this the right plan for America? I’ve spent the last few days talking to economists about Biden’s proposal and cut out three key tenets: 1) Let federalism work, 2) Markets can’t do it alone, and 3) Updating infrastructure should mean updating policy.
First, Biden wants to spend big. But as Richard Geddes, professor and infrastructure expert at Cornell University, points out, most of America’s infrastructure is owned by states and local governments. Should Washington lead the way a city improves its roads? How will the funds be disbursed from the federal government to the states? Without clear guardrails, Washington will do what it tends to do: crush local control.
Second, we must recognize that the federal government has a role to play. The interstate road network was not built by competing private companies; there was a need for a certain continuity that the government could provide. Biden is correct in assuming that the government has an interest in creating and updating physical civilian assets, although it appears that leaving the markets to decide how to allocate child care or green energy jobs would be more. effective.
Third, the United States is not the same country it was a century ago. We don’t need a whole new power grid, Geddes said. What we need is to update the policies that maintain the infrastructure we already have. Cities seek bids for a new bridge, take the cheapest contract, and then what? We have massive deferred maintenance, says Geddes, and we need to have discussions on licensing and purchasing reform, maintenance contracts and other political aspects. Without updating the policy, Biden’s plan could lead to the same place we are today: crumbling dams and dilapidated buildings.
What does Biden’s plan mean for Utah? The White House says Beehive State suffers from slow public transportation, as 2,064 miles of highways are in poor condition and Utah’s drinking water systems will need an additional $ 4.4 billion over the next 20 years.
It is very good. The state is growing faster than a colony of rabbits, and it will need serious investment to keep pace with immigration.
But what about child care? The White House says 77% of Utahns live in a child care desert, suggesting the need to invest in schools and “early learning centers.” This may or may not explain the fact that Utah has the youngest population in the country, and it assumes that parents would rather place children in institutional daycare rather than make other arrangements. And what about housing? It is true that Utah is facing a housing shortage, but it is also No. 1 in the country for new home construction. It would seem difficult to increase supply substantially without also reducing demand.
The point is that there are many forces at work. Markets should do their job in areas where they can be most efficient, and cities and the state should be responsible for updating their own infrastructure. Clearly our structures need help, but Utahns should question whether Washington’s approach is right for the state.